Worshipping Gaia

As much as Francis of Assisi loved nature, he understood that our first responsibility is to God and not to nature. It's not clear if his namesake pope feels the same.

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Last month, the redoubtable Jordan Peterson sat down with reporter Colm Flynn of EWTN (the Eternal Word Television Network) to discuss a variety of topics, including his wife Tammy’s miraculous recovery from cancer, the widespread loss of faith in the Catholic Church since the 1960s, and Pope Francis’ “fixation” on “climate change.”

The term “fixation” is a word used by psychologists to indicate a mental abnormality. Dr. Peterson is Professor Emeritus of Psychology at the University of Toronto. He taught at Harvard, where he was nominated for the Levenson Teaching Prize. He understands the meaning of the word “fixation.” He does not lack the boldness to speak what he perceives to be the truth of things.

Concerning climate change, Francis advocates for a powerful global government that is not subject to changing political conditions. Such a measure, he remarks, would “achieve the beginning of a new process marked by three requirements: that it be drastic, intense, and count on the commitment of all.” If this view does represent a “fixation” for a person who is the spiritual head of the Catholic Church, it certainly represents something that is draconian and unrealizable. At the same time, Francis has criticized pro-life advocates for being “obsessed with abortion,” nuns for praying too much, and philosophers for being clear. He has also opined that EWTN is “doing work for the devil.”  

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“I don’t see for the life of me,” Peterson commented, “what the Catholic Church has to do with the ‘climate crisis… Just the formulation is wrong; the priority is wrong; you save the world one person at a time.” He stressed the more important function of the leader of the Catholic Church as “Saving souls…not by worshipping Gaia.”

Peterson also criticized Francis for wanting to be relevant. But the pope’s notion of relevance appears to be conforming to the ways of the secular world. In John 17:9, we read Christ’s words: “not for the world do I pray.” In the Greek language, there are two distinct words for the “world.” One is gaia, which refers to the world that God created, the world that, according to Genesis, is “good.” The second word is aion, which refers to the era or the age. This is the man-made, secular world. Given the priority that Francis assigns to the climate crisis and his concerns about being relevant, one must ask whether he is not worshipping gaia as much as he is worshipping aion.

John the Evangelist explains why Christ would not pray for the world (aion). In his explanation, He draws a distinction between being “in the world” and being “of the world” (John 17:18-23). This world is not our permanent residence. We are destined to live with God in the next world. In being “fixated” on this world, we neglect the higher importance of the next world. In this regard, Peterson seems to be on good footing when he emphasizes the primary importance of the soul’s journey to Heaven and the secondary importance of life in this world.

In an earlier episode on EWTN, Larry O’Connor, host of “O’Connor Tonight” on the Salem News Channel, spoke “of the green energy religion in this country where people have replaced God with the environment. They are going back to pagan days, worshipping trees and the sun, and it is ridiculous.” While the word “worship” may be overly theatrical, his comment is not without merit. Michael Crichton, the late science fiction writer, outlined an environmental religion which is purportedly an answer to our primal parents’ banishment from Eden and our subsequent fall from grace:  

We are all energy sinners, doomed to die, unless we seek salvation, which is now called sustainability. Sustainability is salvation in the church of the environment. Just as organic food is its communion, that pesticide-free wafer that the right people with the right beliefs, imbibe.  

The movement from theology to ecotheology is very real. The Jesuit magazine America has dubbed environmentalism “an American heresy.”

Jordan Peterson, in effect, is asking what many would regard as an impertinent question: Is Francis the Pontifex Maximus of the Catholic Church, or is he the pope of “the church of the environment?” Would it not be wiser for Francis to attend to matters of the human soul and leave the climate crisis to scientists? Why does he insinuate himself where he is not competent? Is Francis the Pontifex Maximus of the Catholic Church, or is he the pope of “the church of the environment?” Would it not be wiser for Francis to attend to matters of the human soul and leave the climate crisis to scientists?Tweet This

Peterson is not a Catholic, although he credits the Church for getting many things right. Peter Kreeft surmises that Peterson’s final obstacle to entering the Church is a simple faith that is not part of philosophical probing. Some have assumed that the final obstacle is Pope Francis himself. 

Another Francis, the one from Assisi, is the patron saint of ecology. He was formally given this title by John Paul II in 1979. The now St. John Paul II was passionate about respect for nature as part of the environment. He urged his flock to “care for all of Creation,” which includes “respect for life and the dignity of the human person.” As much as Francis of Assisi loved nature, he understood that our first responsibility is to God and not to nature. If we love God, we will respect nature, which is His creation. To attend to nature without a sense of responsibility to God is tantamount to treating nature as a god (gaia). The Christian religion does not neglect nature, therefore, but subordinates it to her Creator. Peterson’s words will not have fallen on deaf ears.


  • Donald DeMarco

    Donald DeMarco is professor emeritus of Saint Jerome’s University and an adjunct professor at Holy Apostles College and Seminary. He is a regular columnist for the Saint Austin Review and the author, most recently, of Reflections on the Covid-19 Pandemic: A Search for Understanding.

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